“Man is by nature a social animal.”
When I was born, sun in Pisces, 1982, the hospital had only been the normal setting of human births for about 100 years.
For the roughly 10,000 years or so before that, birth happened within the four walls of one’s home, with the assistance of a local midwife, family members and/or neighbors. And for 190,000 years prior to that, before the allure of greater control over nature brought on the Agricultural Revolution and finally settled us into domiciles, mama gave birth in some safe space out in the natural world, under the protection of her tribe. So, for over 99% of our history as homo sapiens we were born outside. For .0005% of that time, in an industrialized medical setting.
Our evolutionary advantages as humans came, first, from huge brains which allowed us to organize and share ideas with other sapiens, to learn from the past and plan for the future and to relate in more complicated ways. And second, from our bipedalism which freed us up for dextrous manipulation of our natural environment via technology and increasingly skillful, specific, widespread and long-lasting communications. But this combination of large head and a narrow, upright pelvis came with huge tradeoffs in the form of suffering for the birthing mother, high risk of mortality for her and her baby, and a long period of precariousness and energy expenditure while the new human remained incapable of caring for itself.
They now call the first few months of newborn life the "fourth trimester," but really the phase of near total co-dependency lasts for the first couple years. Back when we went about in traveling bands, someone would have to carry the child until it developed the strength and motor skills to keep up on its own little biped feet. For contrast, a baby deer will be standing on its own legs within 10 minutes of being born, walking within 7 hours. A fledgling bird will be flying from the nest anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks after hatching, depending on the species.
When Life gave us these advantageous but dangerous gifts, it also sealed our need of community, society, it made us instinctively seek belonging to a trustworthy band of collaborators. A human birth takes a long while and causes excruciating pain for the female, who needs all of her energy and focus just to get through the process; someone else must be able to be on alert for predators or inclement weather, for holding her up or encouraging her when she got scared or tired. A nursing mother is expending tons of energy feeding and schlepping her baby and fares best if some fellow travelmates help her get nourishment and share the labor of carrying the growing weight of the baby. If the species was to successfully perpetuate itself, we would need to use our big brains and free hands to cooperate. And this would require something of our hearts, as well. Each tribe member would need an empathetic emotional body, one which cares about the welfare of these distinctly other bodies which were temporarily compromised. We would have to regard the wellbeing of the birthing and breastfeeding mother, that of the the fetus and developing infant, as essential to the wellbeing of the whole tribe. Knowing that a failed tribe cannot serve the individual, this empathy is not such a leap.
The "fourth trimester" is a time when the warmth and protection of mama's arms, and other trusted loved ones, form an outer womb. In doula training, this early development period was given the utmost importance, especially those moments right after the baby emerges from the womb. It was drilled into us that, except in the most extreme circumstances, a newly emerged nude infant should be put immediately upon its mother’s bare chest, where skin contact could soothe the radical transition from warm womb to harsh air. Then the mama and papa should speak to their infant right away in soothing, melodic tones, something that the parents of every birth I assisted did naturally as soon as they could physically touch it and inspect its face This experience creates another important bridge of continuity between the blind, bound, sonic, watery space of safety and the sudden revelation of this bright, wide multi-sensory world.
The original “safe space” was not a physical one, but a social one. It makes sense that, no matter how thick our walls or stockpiled our weapons or advanced our life-saving technology, there is no replacement for the genuine sense of safety one experiences when surrounded by loving hearts and able hands and encouraging sounds of trusted fellow humans.
A central princple of the Q’Ero lineage of the High Andes of Peru, is that of ayni, or sacred reciprocity. (Pronounced AY-nee.) The idea that we are all engaged in a constant exchange of energy and resources with one another. According to Q’Ero wisdom, if an individual is suffering, she ought to look to her relationships with other beings and with the natural world, and determine if the give-and-take of resources is in-balance, appropriate, harmonious.
In a way that seems to mostly jive and cohere with the wisdom of Modern Physics, Taoism and all the other Shamanic/indigenous/nature-based traditions that I’ve come across, this worldview posits that the Whole Universe is comprised of a vast multitude of intricately and exquisitely interrelated Parts. It also jives with the less dogmatic schools of Yoga and Buddhism and other religions, but most of these schools went full hierarchy long ago making them at odds for the ayni worldview, where there is no single being or group of beings “superior” to any other.
These Parts are in a constant exchange of energy and resources, and this exchange tends ultimately toward a great harmony. From one perspective, the Whole is spontaneously manifesting the Parts and their relationships in every moment. From another perspective, each Part is responsible for its own piece of the dance and, together, all the Parts collaborate in the magnificent act of co-creation that we call Reality.
In this enormous and intricate and exquisite Universe, both of these perspectives would be totally valid and non-contradictory. But the second one gives a human being a place to stand and stake and state and start a journey. This is where ayni comes in not just as a philosophy, but a practice.
When we are “in ayni,” or in “right relationship” with something or someone we experience the joy of collaborating on a healthy shared reality, of participating in a give-and-take which makes all parties experience health and harmony. When we are “out of ayni” it creates disharmony which manifests as different kinds of problems in the self and in the shared world.
Like breathing, the point here is not to accumulate the most or best resources (inhales); nor is it to offer the most or the best offerings (exhales). To “win” as an individual, if that concept holds up at all, is simply to play your natural role in alignment with the Whole. To consider yourself as a unique and necessary giver-and-receiver and let the energy of the Whole move through your Part. The reward for playing one's Part in ayni is that you feel the trusting belonging to a healthy world where you can trust resources to flow smoothly and appropriately, bringing you and everything else here just what it needs just when it needs it. The reward cannot be that you get to receive more or better resources than others, or to be the ultimate giver, the one who bestows the most and best resources. The reward is not to be ahead of others in your environment, to be above them or in closer proximity, but simply to be together in harmony. No individual Part can gain such a reward, because it cannot extract itself from the Dance.
This exchange of resources and energies is how the Universe communicates with itself. The resources being passed around are not created or destroyed, but simply redistributed and transformed through constant exchange. So where we humans have the power to work toward ayni is not as “creators” or “controllers” of the exchange, that would be more accurately descriptive of the role of the Whole. Our great power to usher in health (or its opposite) has to do with how we let the information move to us, from us and through us.
Communication is the medium of all relationships, the gestures of this cosmic dance. The human body seems to arrive all hooked up to the Whole, hip to the nature of this seamless exchange. But the human mind, which sets us apart as the thinking, speaking, social animal, has the power to disrupt the dance at every juncture. The human mind gave us ways of communicating more complex than breathing air, receiving nutrients and discarding waste, getting born and returning to compost. Human language gives us so many places for the sacred exchange to turn scary, for cries to ring out without response, for resources to fail to flow where they’re needed, for the balance within us and between us humans to be disrupted.
My mom was 19 and my father 25 the day I was born. I was only zero. But, historically speaking, the hospital was the true newcomer to the birth process, with its sterilized surfaces and complicated equipment and bustling medical professionals and promise for better control over the birth process, the medicalized setting was a newborn.
Manifesting a new human is a collaboration of different parties, all ruled by nature. It started with sex, of course, a sperm collaborating with an egg. After the long gestation period, my own little fetal hormonal system knew exactly when to release the "go" hormones to initiate labor, my mom's reproductive system knew just how to respond with contractions and dilations and the production of colostrum, the ideal nutrition for my first breastmilk meal. My parents' emotional bodies knew how to bond with me and desire my wellbeing as an extension of their own. The instinct to undergo this collaborative genesis was encoded in our DNA thousands of millennia ago. The hospital, by contrast, is in its first millisecond on the job.
I was born with "wet lung," characterized on kidshealth.org by "quick, labored breath with a grunting exhale, flaring nostrils or bobbing head, skin pulling in between the ribs and bluish skin around the mouth and nose."And I also had jaundice, meaning that my skin and eyes had a yellow hue. Neither condition is uncommon or particularly dangerous but it was enough for the doctor to whisk me right away for testing and monitoring.
After I started doing birth doula work, where the main job was to think about the mother’s experience, I asked my mom if it felt traumatic to not touch me or see me right after I was born. She said, “I knew you were ok. I was exhausted and slept in the hospital bed. Your dad got into bed too and passed out and I remember being annoyed. It was a tiny bed.” I laughed and felt relieved for her. A few years later it first occurred to me that, though she trusted the doctors and nurses and special training and equipment to keep me safe, my newborn animal physiology and psychology might not have experienced such trust.
I don’t remember any of this but this huge brain of mine gives me the capacity to extrapolate, connect dots, imagine and story tell.
In my transition from safe, known home to foreign world, I did not feel loving touch, but brisk hands and metal cart. None of the sounds in this drastically different world would have been at all familiar, and could not have provided a sense of continuity or trust. In the first three trimesters I received all my resources via my mother’s body automatically. But now there was this extra step. I had to communicate my needs to her through my crying. New babies instinctively know how to cry out to the Whole in asking for their physiological and emotional needs to be met moms learn to interpret the different cries and respond with the appropriate resources. “Mom, I need food. Mom, I’m uncomfortable. Mom, I'm scared.” And new moms instinctively crave to respond. But this got disrupted from moment one. I must have screamed all the way out of the room, all the way down the hall. “Mom, where are you? Mom, what is this place? Mom, what the fuck is going on?” I must have screamed and screamed my little wet lungs dry until—What? Until I wore myself out? Until some part of me answered, “They’re not coming, honey” and gave up? Until the doctor finally brought my mom and dad into the nursery hours later?
Before this I got all the oxygen and nourishment and protection and connection from mama for free. But now my new lungs had to pump for themselves. My first act of communication, a vulnerable request for comfort and care, echoed back to me off the bright, white hospital walls.
It is in the nature of love to express itself, to affirm itself, to overcome difficulties. Once you have understood that the world is love in action, you will look at it quite differently. But first your attitude toward suffering must change. Suffering is primarily a call for attention, which itself is a movement of love. More than happiness, love wants growth, the widening and deepening of consciousness and being. Whatever prevents this becomes a cause of pain and love does not shirk from pain. Sattva, the energy that works for righteousness and orderly development, must not be thwarted. When obstructed it turns against itself and becomes destructive. Whenever love is withheld and suffering is allowed to spread, war becomes inevitable. Our indifference to our neighbor's sorrow brings suffering to our door.”
- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
The Agricultural Revolution, which brought birth into homes, was an attempt to take greater control over natural resources and natural processes. The Industrial Revolution, which brought birth into hospitals, was an attempt to take this control even further. Both of these attempts brought certain advantages but also brought sacrifices.
From an evolutionary perspective our moves toward greater and greater control have been successful: more babies are born, more mothers survive, we are the top of the food chain and there are lots and lots of humans. But has it improved our quality of life? Brought more health, more wisdom, more freedom, more happiness? Has it brought us into right relationship, more harmonious exchanges amongst humans and between the social sapiens and their greater ecosystem?
This enormous trade off seems to have us living without a sense of true belonging and trust. the collaborative process of life and less experiences in the collaborative process of life working out for us. Does this have something to do with the anxiety and depression that I have struggled with my whole life? Does this have something to do with the rampant psychological, emotional and physical epidemics that ravage the modern human experience?
We are the speaking animal but that doesn’t mean we can talk ourselves out of belonging to the natural world. We are the thinking animal but that doesn’t mean we can plot an escape from physical pain and death. We are the technological animal but that doesn’t mean we can control the universe. We are the collaborating, culture-making animal but a whole bunch of us nodding yes in sync to some concept does not make it true.
As I write this, I have to constantly check my own will to control. Do I write to proclaim myself superior to modern culture, or to forever divorce myself from domiciles, farming or hospitals? Do I write in order to conveniently simplify a lifetime of challenges with the excuse of some origin trauma? Do I write to promote some more comfortable version of the truth, or to project only my best parts before your eyes, or to protect you from seeing my shadowy or vulnerable parts? Do I write for your approval and validation?
I am learning to return myself to the trust of a healthy human community, to the wise ways of the natural world encoded in my DNA, and to the Whole, my infinite home. I am using acts of language to illuminate aspects of my own personal suffering so that it might be transmuted into wisdom. I write this because, in sharing with you, dear fellow human, I feel our relationship come alive, and a sense a sacred experience of connection and compassion and collaborative spirit manifesting in the space between us. I write because I was born with an instinct to express my internal world externally, because, in your reading and responding, I feel seen and heard and held in the safe space of tribe. I write because these are the gestures available to me as I dare my own dance with the Whole.